Species: Prunus spinosa
Related genera: Crataegus, Malus, Pyrus, Rosa, Sorbus
Names and myth: In Rome the thorn-bearing tree was known as Bellicum, literally ‘charge’. In the Ogham blackthorn is represented by Straif, the Celtic root-word for the English ‘strife’ and represents the darkest of all trees. Thus the dark thorny branches are sometimes visualized to be covered in the blood of enemies. A long and cold winter was thus called a Blackthorn Winter. Its rune is the Thurisaz (“thorn”) rune, which represents wisdom and the ability to keep a secret. Blackthorn carries a lot of negative and baneful associations and so folk believe holds that the thorn-crown of Jesus was made of blackthorn. However, another legend tells it was the buckthorn and the blackthorn was innocent of lending its twigs to the torture of Jesus and to proof it, god covered the tree with a shroud of white flowers. The flowers appear before the foliage and cover the still barren branches in white. The thorns and twigs are valued as a means of protection. Blackthorn hedges were planted around yards and pastures to protect the home and cattle. In the same way the twigs and thorns were believed to protect from hexes and malign spirits, and were likewise able to cast as well as return a curse. Single or multiple thorns (in curse called ‘pins of slumber’) were used to prick wax-images or dolls representing the victim or animal organs such as the heart and liver. In return witches or people, who were thought to have caused mischief, were burned on blackthorn pyres. In medieval times the Devil was believed to prick his followers with a spine from the blackthorn tree. A ‘black wand’ or ‘black rod’ made of blackthorn – with thorns attached to its end – pointed at a pregnant woman was thought to induce miscarriage. Blackthorn is also the traditional wood used for fighting by bellicose tinkers (see). Likewise the Irish Shillelagh, a weapon disguised as a walking stick, was commonly made from a blackthorn branch dressed with whiskey-butter (thus also called whiskey-stick) and placed up a chimney to cure, from which it received its black shiny appearance. Sometimes the tip was hollowed out and filled with lead afterwards, so that the hitting end would gain more impact. Such staff was also called a ‘loaded stick’. When used as a weapon and not disguised as a walking stick, the staff was sometimes shorter and called a cudgel or bata, similar to an Iroquois skull-cracker. Today the use of the stick as a weapon is cultivated in Irish martial arts Bataireacht (stick fighting).
Also known as Mother of the Woods and Wishing Thorn.
Medicinal: The flowers, bark and fruits act adstringent, diuretic, mildly laxative, antipyretic, stomachic and anti-inflammatory. A flower infusion is given to children with diarrheal disease, nephric and vesical disorders and stomach trouble. Sloe elixir is also drunk as a tonic to regain strength after infectional diseases. A watery extract from the boiled leaves is used as a mouth-wash against tonsillitis etc. or as a soothing eye-bath (see). Tea from the bark is also said to calm the nervous system.
Other Uses: In medieval times ink used for manuscripts was won from the bark. The berries are harvested after the first frost and used in sloe gin and fruit jam making.
Calendar Day: April 15